Magnum Opus

Sarah Starr Murphy


Just because it wasn’t his fault didn’t mean that she could forgive her husband for slowly turning to stone. He would abandon her, take a polished exit, while her flesh yielded to the devastation of aging.

It started with the thud of a stone finger on her neck. Just one. The rest of his fingers were still warm, pliant, but that smallest of fingers was smooth, hard and cold. She swallowed a shriek of fear; she held the finger in her fist to warm it, but it would not warm.

It was a wrist that petrified next, which surprised her. She thought the fingers would go in orderly progression, but she had been a fool to think such a thing. What did she know anyway; no one she knew had ever fossilized before.

Despite hours of furtive prayer, a week later she woke at midnight and saw that his right ear caught the moonlight, gleaming and luminous on the pillow. His hair went all at once, hardening into its natural waves one morning just as he finished brushing it. Thank god for good timing, he had said. He had laughed.

Then the haphazard progress inexplicably slowed. Every morning she inquired about his health– everything still jiggly, she’d ask, an attempt at levity.

He would frown, nod, and complain. His foot was asleep, his nose was stuffy, he had a bit of a headache. She found his quotidian complaints galling; couldn’t he appreciate his remaining flesh?

She couldn’t stay mad, because it would only get worse. They would need a wheelchair, or perhaps one of those beds that moved up and down. It all depended, the doctors said, on what went next. Those doctors were of no help at all.

This morning he was still snoring, so she got up and made coffee. As it brewed, she stared out into the yard, to the marble plinth he had ordered when this all started. That was where she was to place his fully petrified body. Where instead of a funeral, she’d hold an opening with wine and cheese. Where he would stand for eternity, naked, unafraid, and vulnerable only to acid rain.

She poured the coffee and added only a scant teaspoon of sugar because of his family history of diabetes. She hoped that when he went, he’d remember to keep his arms close to his body like they’d discussed. Like she knew he’d practiced, when she wasn’t around. It was always the arms that got knocked off sculptures, because they stuck out so. She didn’t want to have to look at him on the plinth minus a limb. She imagined him in the winter, collecting snow and cardinals on broad, sculpted shoulders, arms crossed over his chest, biceps flexed. Frozen perfection. But would the birds shit on his head?

Returning to the bedroom, she was relieved to see him lying naked face down on their bed, soft and fleshy. Excepting, of course, the finger, the ear, the wrist, and the hair.

Settling on the bed next to him, she ran a hand from the cold hard hair down to his vulnerable neck. Even as it killed him, the mineralization was a form of protection. She would be left to crumple alone, like a time-lapse movie of a strawberry moldering and liquifying.

He rolled over, smiled. “Coffee,” he said, “You do love me.”  He opened his eyes and she choked on a scream. His honeyed brown eyes were now carved white imitations. He blinked, the thin skin of his eyelid skimming over the smooth marble.

“I’m afraid I can’t see,” he said. She shushed him, helped him to sitting, and put the coffee mug in his hands. He sat, white eyes staring, while she tried to slow her runaway heart. Sunlight slid around the edge of the window shade, illuminating one of her landscapes on the wall. A barn in a field, surrounded by brown cows and threatening, scudding clouds.

She tugged the shade open to let in the light, then ran down the hall to her studio. She returned to the bedroom and squeezed fat blobs of color onto her palette. He wrinkled his nose at the smell.

“What are you doing?”

“Giving you back some color,” she said, touching the brush to the burnt sienna brown, swirling it with a fleck of titanium white, a fleck of cadmium yellow. This she knew.

He smiled. “I’d like that.”

“I’ll do your eyes first. Open wide; you’ll have to keep them open until it dries.”

She reached with her paintbrush for his iris, swirling the paint, trying to capture her memory of his gaze. When she finished, he looked a bit unhinged, but the color was right. He smiled up at her.

“How do I look?”

“You’re beautiful,” she said, touching the brush to his hair. She swept it along, leaving long streaks of color, then leaned in and kissed him on his lips, still so soft and red. She wondered which colors she would mix to paint them. So many reds to choose from – cadmium, ochre, vermillion, crimson, even magenta. She would mix and mix until she had it perfect. Soon enough, there would be no rush.

She put his coffee mug on the bedside table and acquiesced when he rolled on top of her. The paint smeared on the sheets, slicked their bodies. They kissed, and kissed, and when he put his small stone finger in her mouth, she sucked it as if it were flesh. She would paint it the color of apricots, she thought, and her mouth flooded with the taste. She would make him immortal. She would make him a marvel for the ages.


Sarah Starr Murphy is a writer and teacher in rural Connecticut. She’s an editor for The Forge Literary Magazine. Her stories have appeared in The Baltimore Review, Opossum, and several others. She taught English in Baltimore and New Haven and is always inspired by middle schoolers.